Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer isn’t only replacing Angela Merkel – she’s the president of the German adult education association

Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer has just been elected the incoming leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats. She’s an experienced politician who has served as prime minister of the Saarland, but she also has another claim to fame: since 2015, AKK (even Germans find her full name a bit of a mouthful) has been serving as president of the Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband, Germany’s federal adult education association.

Image from the DVV website

The presidency is largely an honorific and symbolic position, but nonetheless an important one. As well as presiding over ceremonial events such as prize giving and awards, AKK has occasionally lent her voice to lobbying and campaigns. For instance, earlier this year used her standing to call on the federal government to offer better support to integration courses for refugees.

Overall, my impression is that she hasn’t been such a high profile personality as her predecessor, Rita Süssmuth (also from the CDU). I’m not sure what happens if and when AKK becomes the next federal Chancellor, though I imagine that at that stage she would have to resign from her role in DVV.

Still, it’s quite a coup to have Merkel’s successor as your president. There is a trade-off between getting too close to a particular serving politician and their party on the one hand, and ensuring that adult education visibly has the standing and recognition that it needs. Hopefully DVV will continue to attract support from senior policy makers, and get this balance right.

Advertisements

Coercion and adult education: the case of Austrian asylum-seekers

Austria has many wonderful qualities and I’ve always enjoyed visiting and learning from it. But I’m not so comfortable with a recent announcement by the country’s Bundeskanzler Sebastian Kurz, who plans to link welfare benefits for asylum-seekers with their competence in German.

baleh

Deutschkurs, from the website of Caritas Wien

To date, monthly social welfare payments for Austrians and asylum-seekers alike are a minimum of 863 Euros (£768/$983) for a single person. In future, asylum-seekers will receive 563 Euros (£501/$641) until they achieve B1 in German, though an exception will be made for those who can speak English to at least level C1 (see here for a full explanation of the language levels).

Previously, attendance at a language course was required only after a positive decision on asylum. I reckon at least a year is needed for someone from a different language tradition to achieve B1 in German, quite possibly longer. And that is assuming that (a) you are literate in your own language and (b) can find a course in the first place. Effectively this measure places asylum-seekers in a waiting room, where they will inevitably struggle to survive until they can leave a course with a nice neat certificate.

Bundeskanzler Kurz has justified the change with reference to the 2015 ‚refugee wave‘. This group was disproportionately composed of young adult men, and Kurz claims that a high proportion have preferred welfare to an apprenticeship. Even if there is something in his claim (if so, much of it is due to the slow rate at which asylum claims are being processed), the decision will also affect children, single parents and older asylum seekers.

The new requirement is also being introduced at a time when support for language courses has been cut. In the last year Austria recognised 22,000 asylum seekers; yet there are only 7,000 places available. And when the Catholic adult education provider in Steiermark offered its own courses, it was roundly attacked by Kurz’s coalition partner, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs.

This is among a number of migration-related measures introduced by the government, which is a ‘blue-black’ coalition of Kurz’s conservative Österreichische Volkspartei with the right-populist Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs. Remarkably, some of these measures have been directed against migrants from elsewhere in the EU (but not, significantly, against migrants from Switzerland).

Times have clearly changed in the Alpine paradise since I posted a rather positive and optimistic analysis of Austria’s adult education partnership and its achievement. The  coalition’s decision seems to me wrong in principle and likely to backfire in practice. Meanwhle, I have great sympathy for those adult language teachers who will be faced with the practical consequences, and with those migrants who no doubt will be roundly denounced for failing to integrate.

Adult education goes to Hollywood

nightschool

Recently my Sunday newspaper reviewed Night School, a comedy with a touch of romance set in Atlanta. It’s plot centres on a high school dropout who for linked reasons of career and the heart returns as an adult to study for his General Education Development (GED) Certificate.

In spite of its highly-regarded cast and an established director, the film isn’t likely to win an Oscar or become a cult classic. The movie website Rotten Tomatoes summarised it as a ‘disappointingly scattershot comedy’ while the New York Times found it a ragged comedy’ and the London Times attacked its ‘long out-dated streak of sexism’.

Much as I love films, I’ve not seen it and have no plans to. But I certainly think it is an interesting phenomenon and would love to know how audiences respond to its setting, as well as to its fundamental belief that a motley group of mid-life American oddballs will see adult education as the solution to their problems.

With few exceptions, it’s unusual for adult education to feature as a central plot device in a mainstream movie, let alone one that is currently playing at my local Odeon and Vue theatres. As Emily Yoshida wrote in her review, this makes the film stand out all the more, by portraying

A group of working class Americans optimistic enough to believe that a high school diploma might be the key to turning their lives around, no matter how far into them they are.

Whether this good-hearted intention is enough to rescue the film from its frailties is a matter of opinion. I’ll watch it if and when it turns up on tv, terrestrial or streamed, but until then even the hook of a (black ) Hollywood take on adult education won’t part me from my money.

More interesting for me is the way in which the filmmakers make assumptions about audience understandings of adult education; and the possible impact of the film on audiences’ attitudes towards adult education. Meanwhile, you can watch the trailer here.

Yet more gongs for leaders in lifelong learning

Every time I publish a post on adult educators and the honours system, generous readers point out the names I managed to miss. Here is the latest crop:

Mary Stuart, vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln

Maggie Dawson, former chief executive of the WEA Cymru, following a long career in adult education in South Wales, has an OBE

Stella Hardy, active as a voluntary officer in the WEA South Eastern District and a member of the Advisory Council on Adult & Continuing Education, received an MBE in 1980.

Rob Humphreys, recently retired as Director of the Open University in Wales where he moved after heading up Dysgu/NIACE Wales following a career in adult education at Swansea University, has a CBE.

Ruth Spellman, who became chief executive of the WEA in 2012, was awarded an OBE in 2007 for services to workplace learning

Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor at Lincoln University, who formerly worked in the Centre for Continuing Education at Sussex University, was recently awarded a CBE.

in addition, a number of national directors of the OU have been honoured (including Peter Syme in Scotland and Rosemary Hamilton in Northern Ireland) as well as Will Swann, the OU’s director of students.

Murderous learning – more reflections on adult education in crime fiction

img_1496

Recently I’ve been enjoying a crime novel by an Irish writer, Tana French. The Trespasser is set in Dublin, and its central character is Antoinette Conway, a hard-boiled murder squad detective of mixed race. The novel is interesting on belonging, family, gender, low-level racism, and internal hierarchies in the police. And it also touches upon adult education.

Aislinn, the murder victim, is described as a serial attender of evening classes. The detectives draw up a list of all the classes she took with a view to checking out ‘all the other students or whatever they call them’, a lead they pursue by looking though her financial records for fee payments.

I’d wondered whether this meant that the murder turned on an evening class, which would have been mightily entertaining. But no; Antoinette describes the list of evening classes as ‘depressing as hell’:

Aislinn genuinely paid actual money for a class called Restyle You!, with the exclamation mark, also one for wine appreciation, and something called Busy Babes Boot Camp.

So the evening classes turn out to be a side-alley, something the reader wonders about but which provide nothing by way of leads. Definitely not a plot device, then.

But the evening classes are nevertheless important: they tell the reader something about Aislinn’s character. Her serial pursuit of adult learning reflects Aislinn’s underlying uncertainty about who she is; and they signal her interest in adopting a new social role, restyling herself in order to explore the mystery of her own father’s disappearance.

Needless to say, hard-boiled Antoinette doesn’t think much of this, and indeed she tends to despise Aislinn more generally for being so unsure of herself, and for allowing her vanished father to dominate her life.  From this the reader concludes that Antoinette has dealt with her own childhood losses differently, so that perhaps the role of hard-boiled detective is itself a defensive performance of some kind.

As I say, an interesting novel, not only because of how it deploys adult learning. And  Antoinette’s rather cynical and dismissive view of adult learning, of course, is consistent with her seemingly hard-boiled character. So here is another fine example to add to my accounts of adult education and crime fiction in Germany, neither of which involve detectives who are ‘hard-boiled’.

As for the Busy Babes Boot Camp, no way would I let that pass by without investigating further. It turns out there is a clutch of similarly named fitness classes for Busy Moms, Busy Women, Busy Ladies, and Busy Girls. Busy Babes, though, is French’s invention

Where New York leads: reflecting on market forces and adult learners

brainery

Adult learning in the USA can be an expensive business. For example, New York University charges $125 to join a half-day course on Imperial London and $450 for six three-hour evening classes on Management Principles for Non-Profit Organisations. Presumably enough people are willing to pay these sums for the courses to be viable, but these eye-watering fees also mean that the States can provide many examples of alternative provision.

On a recent visit to New York I came across two cases of alternative provision. The first is the School of Practical Philosophy, which has been running since 1964. The School is registered as a not-for-profit, and describes itself as ‘run by its students on a voluntary basis’. Teachers are apparently not paid; fees vary but a ten week advanced course costs $175, while a one-day event on Plato will set you back $50 (including a Greek lunch and an evening wine reception).

Interestingly, the School has now established itself in the UK. According to its website it has venues across the north west of England, where its offer seems more geared towards mindfulness than the broader programme of its New York parent. I have no idea how successful it is.

The other private venture that intrigued me was the Brooklyn Brainery, the hipsterish name of a not-for-profit which describes its raison d’etre as ‘accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education’. Its courses are relatively cheap ($13 for an evening on the history of gin, for example), interesting, and short, lasting mostly between one and four sessions. Its founders crowd-sourced the start-up funding, much of which went on premises, and are still involved in organising the programme.

I’m not setting these up as models for others to follow, though I think they are both pretty admirable, but rather as examples of the way in which adult learning doesn’t disappear simply because state agencies don’t provide everything. If established providers are too expensive, or too rigidly tied to qualifications and lengthy study programmes, then other bodies will flourish in the gaps. We’ve seen that here in the UK where the University of the Third Age has flowered for one large group of learners neglected by the public system .

The first obvious problem is who gets left behind in this process, which largely favours those who are already the most committed to investing in their own continuous learning. The second is that the content and pedagogy follow the interests and preferences of the most easily recruited learners.

And guess what: the popular courses are short, fun introductions to regional world cuisines, along with ‘how-to’ sessions on how to go about buying a house in New York City. Again, that’s not at all a Bad Thing, but it’s not going to solve our society’s most pressing problems. We still need to think about how adult learning can help us achieve the kinds of community we want, and then ensure that it receives a reasonable degree of public support.

More honours for U.K. adult educators

On April 3rd, I posted some reflections on the relationship between adult educators and the U.K. honours system. It triggered some very interesting comments, and also provoked a small torrent of names that I’d managed to miss. Shamefully, I have to admit that they include at least two good friends.

Here they are, anyway.

Joyce Connon (pictured), Scottish Secretary of the Workers Educational Association, received an OBE for services to community education in 2004

Margaret Davey, who was head of adult education in Croydon at the time she was awarded an OBE in 1996, and also a high profile advocate for adult learning

Jim Durcan, then Principal of Ruskin College, was honoured in 1999 with an OBE

Henry Arthur Jones, Principal of City Lit then Vaughan Professor at Leicester, was awarded a CBE in 1974 after making a signal contribution to the Russell Report

Peter Lavender, responsible for adult literacy in Norfolk and a high profile advocate of adult learning, received an OBE in 2006

Mark Malcolmson, Chief Executive of City Lit, received a CBE in 2017

Sue Pember, who as a civil servant helped design the Skills for Life programme, received an OBE in 2000

Ela Piotrowska, Principal of Morley College, received her OBE in 2013

David Sherlock, formerly head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, got a CBE in 2006

Arthur Stock, Alan Tuckett’s predecessor at NIACE, received an OBE

Carole Stott, a leading figure in the Open College movement who recently announced that she is retiring as chair of the Association of Colleges, was awarded an MBE in 2012

Alan Wells, founder and long-serving director if the Basic Skills Agency, received an OBE

I’m sure this is nothing like an exhaustive list, and look forward to hearing of others that I’ve missed. Two possible further candidates suggested to me were Sir Michael Sadler, the pioneer of university extension in Britain, mainly because I think his knighthood was awarded for other public service (principally a major report on Indian education); and Sheila Carlton, champion of older learners and a stalwart of NIACE, for whose possible honour I could find no evidence.

Asa Briggs, who joined the House of Lords in 1976, chose to teach extra mural classes when appointed to a chair in Leeds, was chancellor of the Open University, and President of the WEA. But I think his baronetcy came as a result of his historical achievements.

It’s a long list, and it will likely get longer. What we don’t know is how many prominent adult educators refused honours, or indeed were considered ‘unsuitable ‘ on semi political grounds.